BY BILLY SUTER
WHAT do Durban actress Clare Mortimer, Johannesburg star Fiona Ramsay and Cape Town’s Robyn Scott have in common with Queen Elizabeth II and Drew Bakker, Durban Theatre Award-winner for his musical direction of KickstArt’s excellent Into the Woods?
The answer is Peter Morgan’s celebrated 2013 play, The Audience, a drama about the monarch’s interaction with her British Prime Ministers over the years – a work originally performed on stage by Helen Mirren and which became the inspiration for the hit Netflix series, The Crown.
The Audience will be read simultaneously in Johannesburg and Cape Town on Monday, January 30 (venues to be announced), and in Durban (3pm for 4pm at Club Altitude in Stamford Hill) on Sunday, January 29.
All readings are open to the public and a minimum donation of R50 is requested, says Bakker, who is moderating the Johannesburg reading and who founded Play Club five years ago.
A producer and director from New York, he relocated to South Africa in 2012, and Play Club was Drew’s initiative to bring theatre-makers and theatre-lovers together.
Since 2012, Play Club has aspired to inspire a sense of community among top theatre and film-makers and their audiences, introducing the ultimate behind-the-scenes look into the creative process at the ground-floor of a play.
Bakker says that for actors, it offers a chance, once-a-month, to dive into the world’s leading scripts and, as the name suggests, play. For drama students and audience, it’s a chance to see where it all begins and to be part of the process.
Simply put, it is not a performance, as we would traditionally know it, but the beginnings, he explains.
It all happens exclusively for one night only… and it’s all driven with a simple vision – to break down walls and create dialogue surrounding the industry.
The Audience marks Play Club’s 42nd reading, will involve 51 actors, and will mark the first time Durban has been included in the reading.
Mortimer will portray the Queen in Durban, Ramsay in Johannesburg and Scott will wear the crown in Cape Town.
The Durban cast for the reading will include Darren King as the Queen’s Equerry, Adam Doré as John Major, Michael Gritten as Winston Churchill, Steven Stead as Harold Wilson, Lisa Bobbert as Bobo MacDonald and Rowan Bartlett as Gordon Brown. Peter Court will appear as Sir Anthony Eden, Bryan Hiles as Tony Blair, Lyle Buxton as David Cameron and Liesl Coppen as Margaret Thatcher. It is set to feature Mpilo “Straw” Nzimande in various ensemble roles with Gracie McIllroy as Young Elizabeth.
Actor and playwright Marc Kay will handle stage directions for the evening.
The Johannesburg cast will feature Renos Spanoudes as the Queen’s Equerry, David Dennis as John Major, Michael Richard as Winston Churchill, James Borthwick as Harold Wilson, Kate Normington as Bobo MacDonald and Alan Committie as Gordon Brown. Then there’s Malcolm Terrey as Sir Anthony Eden, Theo Landey in the dual role of Tony Blair and David Cameron and Louise Saint-Claire as Margaret Thatcher.
It is set to feature Charlie Bouguenon and Jeremy Richard in various ensemble roles with Mikah Jaye Smith as Young Elizabeth.
The evening will feature stage directions by actress and Head of Faculty of Dance and Musical Theatre at Oakfields College, Jackie Rens.
In Cape Town, Joe Vaz appears as the Queen’s Equerry, Adrian Galley as John Major, Graham Hopkins as Winston Churchill, Deon Lotz as Harold Wilson, Candice van Litsenborgh as Bobo MacDonald, Richard Wright-Firth as Gordon Brown and Benedikt Sebastian as Sir Anthony Eden.
Francis Chouler appears in the dual role of Tony Blair and David Cameron and Vicki Bawcombe as Margaret Thatcher. It is set to feature Mark Wijsman and Schoeman Smit in various ensemble roles with Emma-Rose Blacher as Young Elizabeth.
Stage directions for the evening will feature teacher, theatre maker and longtime friend of Play Club, Laura Bosman.
As for the play, it focuses on how, for 60 years, Queen Elizabeth II has met with each of her 12 Prime Ministers in a private weekly audience. The discussions are utterly secret, even to the royal and ministerial spouses.
Playwright Morgan imagines these meetings over the decades of the Queen’s remarkable reign, through Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher to the 2015 incumbent David Cameron.
The play offers a glimpse into the woman behind the crown, and the moments that have shaped the modern monarchy.
I chatted to Drew – who lives in Johannesburg with his husband, Rowan, four pups and (sometimes) a cat – about his background and the Play Club concept.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO ATTEND ‘THE AUDIENCE’?
If you enjoy going to the theatre and would love an inside look into how everything begins, this is the ultimate place for you. Here, you get a look how actors approach a new play for the first time.
It’s also a chance to meet other creatives, network and to read really exciting new plays, often ones that won’t be seen in South Africa.
Ultimately, Play Club is about the community it inspires and that’s what keeps us coming back. The Audience is our biggest Play Club yet. I can’t wait to see what’s in store!
HOW AND WHY DID PLAY CLUB COME ABOUT – AND WHAT HAVE BEEN HIGHLIGHT READINGS SO FAR?
When I first moved to South Africa from the States, I missed the creative aspects of the theatre community in New York and the support system built between theatre people.
“The” Play Club, as it was first called, was a vision to help build that here. It started at Alexander Bar with 13 actors, playwrights and theatre makers around a table and it got them all talking… and the rest, they say, is history.
How to choose a favourite? I’d have to say Angels in America. It was my first ambitious Play Club. We spent six hours over two nights in our tiny, original home at Alexander Bar.
It was pure theatrical bliss, electric and completely unrehearsed. It opened up my eyes to the worlds of plays Play Club could host.
Other highlights include To Kill a Mockingbird and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
WHY THE DECISION TO INCLUDE DURBAN NOW – AND WHY NOT BEFORE?
Durban has been on the horizon for a while. Joburg started in July 2016, and we were just waiting for the right time to start there.
We’ve had a few queries over the last few months from Durban theatre lovers, and what better time to start than the beginning of a new year?
Durban actor and award-winning playwright, Marc Kay, is back in town for a bit and will be kicking off Play Club Durban. He’s been a core member since our beginnings in Joburg, and I couldn’t be happier that he’s agreed to lead the launch in Durbs.
WHAT CAN THOSE ATTENDING ‘THE AUDIENCE’ EXPECT?
Typically, Play Club is held informally around a table, everyone with their scripts in hand. It’s the very first time a particular group of actors sit down and read a particular play together.
We usually begin with introductions, read the play in its entirety, after which we open the floor to everyone there for comments and feedback.
The Audience is a series of vignettes, speculating what happened behind closed doors during Queen Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers.
WHERE AND WHEN ARE THE DURBAN REHEARSALS HELD AND HOW ARE CASTS CHOSEN FOR THESE PLAY READINGS?
Every Play Club is completely unrehearsed and spontaneous. We find great scripts and open up casting to anyone keen to read, and then let our actors loose to play.
It’s a blast for everyone, watching some of the best on a proverbial playground.
The Audience is a special Play Club, where we’ve sourced some of the best stage and screen actors across SA to take part.
WHAT PLANS FOR PLAY CLUB FOR COMING MONTHS – AND WILL DURBAN BE INCLUDED?
Of course Durban is included. We’re not going anywhere. In February, we’re doing Nöel Coward’s Private Lives, and in March we’re checking out a new play, Peter and Alice. You can keep up to date on our website, www.playclub.co.za or on our Facebook page, PlayClubSA.
WHAT ELSE ARE YOU CURRENTLY INVOLVED WITH?
Play Club keeps me busy. Around it, I’m busy with coaching and producing projects.
YOU WERE RECENTLY ON THE KZN SOUTH COAST
I just returned to Gauteng from 10 days on the South Coast with my husband and pups. Heaven.
WHAT HAVE YOU MOST RECENTLY BEEN INVOLVED WITH ON THE THEATRE SCENE – AND IN WHAT CAPACITY?
I’m a sucker for musical theatre. It’s my first love. I’ve been lucky to be part of the music team for Sister Act, Janice Honeyman’s Sleeping Beauty, Saturday Night Fever and Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood. I also worked as resident director on KickstArt’s Shrek iand as musical director of their Into the Woods.
WHAT NEXT FOR YOU – AND WHAT OTHER EVENTS ARE LIKELY TO BE 2017 HIGHLIGHTS FOR YOU?
Play Club in three cities is a huge thing for us. It’s so exciting to be behind getting so many artists together monthly. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to a year of travelling and getting a chance to visit my family Stateside – it’s been three years already!
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN – AND HOW/WHEN DID YOU GET INTO SHOW BUSINESS?
I’m an ’80s baby, originally from outside Los Angeles. I grew up around music and it was always encouraged. My grandma introduced me to musical theatre and was always proud to have got me started. My early VHS (yes, VHS) rotation always included The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. A career in musical theatre was merely a matter of time.
WHAT FORMAL TRAINING HAVE YOU HAD – AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST ‘BIG BREAK’?
I performed from a young age into high school, getting my first professional show at 16 in a dinner theatre production of Damn, Yankees! I studied music for two years at Mesa State Collegeand left home for New York at 19. From there, I stuck it out and made a career for myself in the city as a musical director and pianist.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THREE CAREER HIGHLIGHTS?
John & Jen in New York: a beautiful production of a beautiful little show. Sister Act at the Joburg Theatre: incredibly proud of that production. Into the Woods at the Elizabeth Sneddon: an incredibly rewarding production all around.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON DURBAN’S KICKSTART – AND HOW AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED WITH THEM?
I’m a HUGE fan of KickstArt and the work they do. Steven (Stead) and Greg (King) have become great friends of ours over the years and I constantly am gobsmacked at the quality of the work they do here.
There’s such passion for detail and I LOVE that. I’ve followed KickstArt since first arriving in SA in 2012. But our story together really started when Rowan, my husband, music directed their remount of Sweeney Todd at Montecasino and Theatre on the Bay.
I super-fanned the show in Joburg and from there became great friends with Steven.
I had done several productions of Into the Woods before and with that, Steven asked if I was keen to come down to work on theirs. From there, it’s been a great ride
. I had a great time resident directing their production of Shrek at Gold Reef City and look forward to many, many more shows together!
I’m proud to work alongside, in my opinion, South Africa’s best independent theatre company
ANYTHING PLANNED WITH KICKSTART THIS YEAR?
Watch this space.
ANY OTHER NEWS OR COMMENTS?
Durban, Play Club is all about inspiring community. We can’t wait to welcome you to ours. It’s the perfect place for actors, producers, playwrights, creatives, theatre makers and theatre lovers. But RSVP quickly – seating is strictly limited and our RSVPs are flying. Book yours at playclub.co.za.